Arrigo Saachi’s 4-4-2 system utilised with AC Milan.
Arrigo Sacchi’s route to the AC Milan hot-seat wasn’t of a traditional manager of a top European club with a stellar career which naturally parachuted him into a top job but from more humble beginnings. Sacchi was born in 1946 in Fusignano and didn’t become a professional footballer, but by the age of twenty six was coaching his local team Baracca Lugo, where he himself admitted he needed to command the respect of his players, “I was twenty-six, my goalkeeper was thirty-nine and my centre-forward was thirty-two. I had to win them over” he was quoted.
Following spells with Bellaria he managed the youth team at A.C. Cesena, who were in the Serie B. He moved on to Rimini who were playing in the Serie C1 where he almost led them to the title. Following this, he moved to Fiorentina as a youth coach. His achievements with the youth team did not go unnoticed and subsequently interest from Parma F.C arrived, who were in Serie C1.
Promotion to Serie B was achieved and following good performances in the Coppa Italia campaign, where Parma defeated Milan on two occasions, Silvio Berlusconi approached Saachi to manage Milan in the 1987-1988 campaign.
Sacchi’s team was renowned for its balance, organisation and intense pressing tactics deployed to delay or disrupt opposition possession as well as regaining the ball. At the base of the team, there was a back four who played as a sliding arc, only ever flat when the opposition’s possession was central. Sacchi drilled this into his defenders relentlessly. Paolo Malidini commented “each player was as important defensively as he was in attack, it was a side in which players and not positions were key.”
A key part of his practice was the shadow play drills he ran his team through, seen as revolutionary in continental Europe at the time. Defensively, Saachi would line his team up without opposition, place flags on the pitch to represent the ball and have his players organise into their defensive shape to defend each flag as if it were a player in possession. He would then simulate a ball moving around the pitch with his voice and actions, requiring the players to move accordingly where he would correct positioning in the process.
The pressing tactics used, were it always to regain possession of the ball. Sacchi would use methods of ‘partial pressing’ where players would concentrate more on jockeying rather than winning possession. In other situations, he wold instruct his team to carry out ‘total pressing’ where regaining the ball became the priority and on other occasions he would instruct the players to utilise ‘fake pressing’ where the team made pressing movements but of a lower intensity designed to allow the players to recuperate. “Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard, it’s about controlling space” he said. “Pressing was always collective, I wanted all eleven players in an active position, effecting and influencing the opposition when we did not have the ball.”
Sacchi’s team were compact, moved as a unit and were well drilled. He ensured that the distance between defence and forwards was never more than 25 meters, essentially with the compactness and arcs in the two banks of four, a natural pressing team shape occurred. “In the defensive phase, all players had four reference points; the ball, the space, the opponent and team-mates. Every movement had to be a function of those four reference points. Each player had to decide which of the four will determine his movement.” He added, “The key was the short team. I used to tell my players if we played with the distance of 25 metres from last defender to forward, given our ability nobody would beat us.” The aggressive offside trap meant it was hard for teams to exploit space behind and three compact units in defence meant playing through the team was extremely difficult. “This allowed us not to spend too much energy, to get to the ball first and not to get too tired.”
In conclusion, Sacchi’s Milan was an organised, compact and intense unit without the ball whose tactical nous allowed it to win the ball back in favourable positions whilst still ensuring solidarity in its defensive third. In possession, players such as Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard were able to affect play due to their superb football intelligence in dangerous areas of the pitch. The creative freedom was not compromised by Sacchi’s organisation and structure, so often the criticism of coaches who attempt similar, organised systems. Strictly defensive, was not how the team were. “I always demanded, that at least five players were ahead of the ball when we won possession. There would always be a man wide right, a man wide left.”
Milan became one of the dominant teams in Europe under Sacchi, winning the European Cup in two successive years. The team he left behind was built upon by Fabio Capello where more success followed. Sacchi went on to manage the Italian national team leading the Azzuri to the World Cup final in 1994, only to lose on penalties to Brazil. He parted company with the national team after a disappointing exit in Euro 96 and is now the national youth coordinator.
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